Op-Ed: Pennsylvania Needs a Clear Path Forward

Good evening, I’m State Senator Ryan Aument.

There is no doubt that the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is wreaking havoc on our communities, businesses, and families. Life as we knew it has completely changed, and dealing with the uncertainty of it all can leave us feeling helpless as we wonder when or if our lives will return back to normal.

While the social distancing measures that Governor Wolf has implemented are difficult and frustrating at times to abide by, new data shows that our efforts have been successful in consistently decreasing the death toll of COVID-19. Reports from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show that the actual daily death toll from COVID-19 in Pennsylvania for the last number of days was below the average projection and well below the worst-case-scenario projections. Additionally, these projections show that Pennsylvania will have enough hospital beds and ventilators to get us through the peak of diagnoses if we continue on our current track.

These early numbers are not only a beacon of hope, but they show that our sacrifices have not been in vain. By staying home and following the guidance of health professionals, we are effectively flattening the curve in Pennsylvania. However, rolling back restrictions without hitting key benchmarks such as adequate testing capability and health system capacity coupled with sustained case statistics would imperil both the public health and our economy.  In fact, the economic ramifications could be far, far worse if we ease restrictions too quickly.

As such, I am again encouraging continued vigilance in abiding by the orders from Governor Wolf and the guidance from the CDC, the NIH, the Trump Administration, and the PA Department of Health. Wash your hands, sanitize surfaces, and most recently, wear cloth masks if you absolutely must go out in public. The guidance from every level of government in this country has been very clear – stay home. Failure to do so will most certainly prolong the threat to public health and our economy.

Make no mistake, we are living through historic times – the economic impact of this pandemic, while not more important than the health impact, has the potential to be of epic proportions; the fiscal magnitude and scope of the fallout could be unlike anything we’ve seen before in our lifetime.

So it goes without saying that there is no handbook for this. There is no protocol, no magic formula, no step-by-step guide that outlines

  • how teachers are supposed to transition to 100% distance learning in a matter of days so that we aren’t left with an entire generation of children with a gap in their education, or
  • how farmers are supposed to get food to grocery stores despite unforeseen disruptions in the supply chain, or
  • how small business owners are supposed to keep their livelihoods afloat while cutting back hours or shuttering altogether in attempt to stop the spread of this virus, or
  • how healthcare workers are supposed to care for vulnerable COVID-19 patients while simultaneously ensuring that they aren’t bringing their work home with them and infecting their loved ones, or
  • how public officials are supposed to appropriately and safely balance the need to save lives with the need to protect citizens from economic crisis.

Unfortunately, it is apparent that we were not fully prepared to deal with a public health disaster like this, and none of these decisions have been easy for any of us. I recognize that hindsight is 20/20 and it’s far easier to point fingers at others who aren’t handling the situation the way we think they should. The fact is, COVID-19 snuck up on us all and has forced us to reevaluate nearly every aspect of our lives and adjust accordingly.  But Pennsylvanians are resourceful, unwavering, and will undoubtedly stand firm and united as we defeat this threat together.  

While we were not prepared for this crisis, we can certainly plan for our recovery.

This will require the cooperation and patience of every single Pennsylvanian as we fight to restore and rebuild in the aftermath.

To that end, it is essential that our leaders and public officials work in a bipartisan manner and collaborate together, including members from every branch of government.

This is not the time for partisanship.

Over the last few weeks I have been publicly urging the Governor to work with the General Assembly to establish transparent benchmarks and communicate a plan to the public to protect public health and a data-informed process to roll back economic restrictions.

That is why I am pleased that the General Assembly is working to pass legislation that will establish a bipartisan, inter-branch COVID-19 Cost & Recovery Task Force that will bring together members from the Governor’s Administration, the Legislature, and the Judicial system to cooperatively and expeditiously identify urgent issues, provide a structure to catalog the Commonwealth’s response to the disaster so that we can evaluate and learn from it, and create a forum to receive testimony, information, and recommendations from individuals, small businesses, and industry on how they think we can all move forward together.

I know many of you hear the words “task force” come out of a government official’s mouth and immediately groan at the thought of waiting months or even years before any recommendations, let alone action is taken to fix the issue at hand. It is true, government task forces can be slow, time-consuming responses – and sadly, politicians often use them to appease stakeholders as they merely pretend to work on their issue.

So let me be clear – this task force is NOT that. This task force will have the unique ability to expedite solutions and aid, and to coordinate across all three branches of government from the start, thereby ensuring rapid response and implementation. This task force will use every tool at its disposal to develop a recovery plan that will couple short-term actions with long-term strategies, including proposals to restore education, housing, transportation, and business activity to pre-disaster levels. Top officials from every relevant field will move in lockstep to show Pennsylvanians exactly how we will recover and rebuild this great Commonwealth.

We must begin planning now to roll back the current restrictions and get folks back to work. This is not a criticism of Governor Wolf’s actions, but rather an acknowledgement that now is the time to plan if we are to effectively bring our economy back online so that all Pennsylvanians once again have the opportunity to experience earned success and upward economic mobility. 

The bottom line is that we need to clearly identify a path forward that will not sacrifice public health for economic prosperity or vice versa, because we need both to build a stronger Pennsylvania.  The interbranch COVID-19 Cost & Recovery Task Force will lay out this path for Pennsylvanians. I strongly urge my colleagues in the PA House and Senate to support this approach, and I urge the Governor to sign it when the legislation reaches his desk.

As we all know by now, this situation is rapidly changing on a daily and even hourly basis as Pennsylvania works to combat the COVID-19 virus. For timely updates and important information about the coronavirus efforts in PA, please sign up for my e-newsletter at senatoraument.com.  

Before I sign off, I wish to express my thanks to all those who are serving on the front lines of this battle, especially our emergency services personnel and medical professionals. I am proud of the work you are doing, and grateful for the sacrifices you are making.

Finally, please continue to be patient and take care of one another as we all confront this challenge together. Thank you and God bless you.